Beyond the Ivory Tower: Interviews with Academics #1 with Juana María Rodríguez

juanaIn an effort to add some colorful/creative outlets in my reading and writing-heavy PhD life AND to learn more about what it might mean for me to be in academia, I decided to start a series where I interview (and draw portraits of) academics that I respect 🙂 Hopefully it’ll demystify academia a bit as well, and can become a platform for featuring folks who are doing groundbreaking work within an academic environment where older cisgender heterosexual white men still make up the majority.   This is the first of the series with one of my current professors Professor Juana María Rodríguez who I’m taking “Sexual Subjects: Race, Gender, and National Bodies” with.  The following is her bio on the Berkeley Gender and Women’s Studies page, but please read on to learn about her love of making ceviche and passion for writing:

Juana María Rodríguez is Professor in the Gender and Women’s Studies Department and in the Performance Studies Graduate Group at UC Berkeley. She is the author of two books, Queer Latinidad: Identity Practices, Discursive Spaces (NYU 2003) and Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings (NYU 2014) and has published numerous articles related to her research interests in sexuality studies, queer activism in a transnational American context, critical race theory, technology and media arts, and Latin@ and Caribbean studies. She is currently working on a third book project that investigates how forms of representation that combine visual documentation with auto/biographical narrative transform our affective encounters with the lives of Latina sex workers.

An active contributor to numerous campus initiatives, Professor Rodríguez is affiliated with the Berkeley Center for New Media; the Center for Race and Gender; and the Center for the Study of Sexual Cultures. She is one of the founding members of the Haas Institute’s Center for a Fair and Inclusive Society’s LGBTQ Citizen Cluster, and currently serves on the President’s Advisory Council on LGBT Students, Faculty & Staff for the University of California.


You mention in an interview you did with Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender that you were “an accidental academic”. How does the indirect path you took to end up where you are today affect the way you approach academia?

I think the indirect path makes me appreciate how difficult it is to find a path and how many different ways there are to arrive and the different places that one might arrive at. So in some ways both my own path through education–I attended a community college (CCSF), I attended a CSU (SFSU), I did my masters at Columbia, my Ph.D. at Berkeley, I taught at a small liberal arts college, now here–so I think I’ve had a lot of experience with different types of institutions. Often we tend to see our path or where we have landed as the norm, and I think it’s really helpful for me to in talking with students to discuss all the different ways to arrive and move through academia as well as all the kinds of different institutions you can live and work at.

Do you feel like many students seek mentorship from you because of where you started?

There are a lot of transfer students at Berkeley and often they feel that little bit of hesitancy –like they don’t belong. I think it matters to them that I went to community college, in ways that it matters to me too. It suggests we weren’t “destined” for Berkeley. I think that that’s just about not necessarily thinking that we’re born with any set of skills. I don’t want to say that “if you work hard you will succeed” but education is about learning. And a lot of this stuff, you can learn. You can learn to be a better writer, you can learn to adapt to different genres, you can learn to research more effectively, you can learn to do this stuff. I learned it, you can learn it too. So I am a skills-based kind of person. I think that there’s something about thinking through what are those skills that I want to convey to other people. How do you approach a really difficult text? How do you tunnel through an argument? How do you write more exhilarating sentences? That each one of these things is a different skill, that you add up these little skills and somehow they prepare you for an academic life.

What moments in academia spark joy for you? What gets you excited to wake up in the morning?

I really do love the teaching. I think my students are really smart. And so the idea of thinking with people excites me. I try to model a kind of fearlessness in my classes where you’re not scared, you’re willing to take risks, you’re willing to both state what might seem super obvious and something that might seem completely counterintuitive to everything else that’s going on. So how do you try on ideas? You have to be fearless, you have to take risks. So I think for me, when teaching is going great, it’s when I see my students, when we’re in a community willing to risk ideas and that to me is the class that I leave saying “wow that was great” because I want to learn something new every day. I don’t just want to teach what I know, I want to teach to learn.

How do the teaching and writing you do complement each other?

I teach a lot of writing to undergrads, and so every time I talk someone through a sentence or another way to organize a paper, I think I’m learning about what makes a dynamic sentence, what are the best ways to transition? In some ways, the more you teach a subject the more you really come to know it, so the more I teach about writing, the more I come to know it, and to feel more empowered in my own writing practice.


////A brief interlude//// to get to some of Juana’s day-to-day responsibilities as a tenured professor at Berkeley. First, she explained the three parts to being an academic: teaching, research and service.

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Then she shared her CV with me as well as several of the commitments she has this semester in each of those categories.


  • 1 graduate seminar that includes 15 students from various levels and disciplines which can make it pretty challenging.
  • 1 undergraduate senior seminar for thesis writers which has a 28 students! That means she’s supervising 28 theses. She has one Graduate Student Instructor who helps her meet with some of those students, but it’s a lot of work.


  • she tries to write three times a week and pushes herself to write new content
  • she presents several times a year around the world on her work

Service: She has multiple meetings a week from the following committees and more:

  • Academic Senate, chair of committee on committees
  • Gender and Women’s Studies committees
  • Chancellor’s symposium on gender and women’s studies committee
  • Janet Napolitano task force on LGBT Faculty, Students, and Staff
  • American Studies Association National Council

On top of committees (“a lot of coffee!”, she said), in any given year she will reviews book manuscripts for university presses, reviews articles for academic journals, writes tenure reviews and letters of recommendation. The numbers really vary, but it can really add up.

In looking at her 16 page-long CV, which you can see through her profile page, you find a prolific and active member of many circles. I think that the hard work of increasing diversity in academia and mentoring minority students is often disproportionately placed in the hands of professors like Juana Maria, but I am continually inspired by her hopeful and down-to-earth attitude when looking at the battles we have to choose.  I am also extremely inspired by her writing, which is on-point! Check out her latest book: Sexual Futures, Queer Gestures, and Other Latina Longings which came out just last year. It was phenomenal. The chapter “Mambo Time” has song titles as subheadings and so I made a playlist of all of them for your enjoyment: here

//////////back to the interview

Even with tenure, our work gets reviewed every three years at Berkeley.  So you know, it doesn’t end. One of the things I try to talk to graduate students about is what are the kinds of writing habits that are going to be sustainable because it doesn’t stop. You have to REALLY love writing.


After my second book (see above), I published a bunch of weird little things like a piece for Jose Muñoz’ passing, I published a poem, I published this short piece on this performance artist in GLQ entitled “Viscous Pleasures and Unruly Feminisms”—I just published a lot of different things. So not all of the work that I do is like “this is an article” some of it is other kinds of writing. Keywords are a totally different genre of writing. They’re so hard to write! But they’re interesting–they’re great for students and teaching from them, to own and think about.

What are some non-academic rituals and activities that you absolutely can’t go on without?

I try to dance as often as possible–I love salsa, but I really love all kinds of dance. So I try to go out and dance.

To bars and clubs?

Yeah, I’m still a bar dyke! I also cook pretty seriously, and I really enjoy it. I recently experimented with all kinds of ceviches.

Do you like to have a separation between your academic and non-academic worlds? Do you hang out a lot with academics?

What happens is, over the course of my life, I have so many really good friends that are also academics. That said, I have a ton of people in my life that are not academics, and even if I don’t see them that much, they are still my go-to friends. But because academia is so much a part of my daily life, being able to talk to other academics about the whole work/life balance, the “oh my god, my department’s driving me crazy” or this or that becomes really useful to have friends that get that. That get the structure of the place because it’s a very different kind of work environment. So the rest of the world thinks you’re only working when you’re teaching, that you have your summers off. They have no idea all the other stuff that you do. They have no idea of what a politically charged place universities are.

Do you set a pretty strict schedule for yourself during the summers?

I do! I really looking forward to time when I can write more continuously to get more of that momentum going. I’m going on sabbatical in the fall which is great! So that’s an extended period of time from the summer into the fall that I’m excited about. I also look forward to getting back into an exercise habit, in a more balanced world, I would be exercising more. I feel that the writing, the work and the exercise, one of those is always in danger of being neglected.

It’s a juggling act–some balls are going up and some balls are going down.

Exactly. Sometimes my family gets more interesting meals and other times it’s like “yesss we’re having taquitos for dinner, again.”

Do you try to cook dinner for them most nights?

Not most nights, but yeah I cook. When you have a kid and you’re not cooking, they’re probably not eating vegetables. So if you want them to eat vegetables, you have to cook the vegetables.

When you’re taking care of him, do you feel like your academic research comes out a lot? Do you talk about it with him?

Yeah, I think he’s older now so I think it’s good for him to know what I do. For him to see me writing for example and for him to know that “oh yeah, I write and revise, I have other people read my work, I read my stuff out loud” that whatever issues he’s having writing as a 13-year-old in middle school, are the same kind of the same issues I’m having as a professional writer. And we talk about political things too, about the world so I try to be that “good, engaged Berkeley parent”. BUT, I also think it’s important to teach him that my work is important and that I enjoy it and that I take pleasure in it. And that success in life in terms of work is enjoying what you do. And that you’re always going to enjoy parts of it more than other parts.

How do we make sure we’re engaging with the world?

It’s really interesting because I think for example, the Janet Napolitano task force was involved in creating guidelines for gender inclusive restrooms, for gender inclusive computer data systems so that students aren’t outed when you call roll. Gender inclusive facilities like the rec centers. It was a super huge impact that’s not just UC Berkeley, but also UC Merced, UC Riverside–throughout the system that those guidelines will go into effect. So even as I understand that they’re going to be kind of slow getting implemented, I trust that work will make a difference. It’s going to impact new construction projects. It’s a legacy that I’m not necessarily going to see it but I know that we got something in writing, that’s going to move forward. So that impacts the daily lives of so many students, faculty, staff–it makes this place more livable. So I see these are big institutions, so the kind of institutional change that can happen here is huge. So even as I understand the way the institution is part of larger systems, I think that there are all these ways in which I can move the dial inside of the institution that are super impactful. And I see the work I do in classrooms teaching as super impactful. I’m training social workers, and middle school teachers, and lawyers, and people that might go work for Google or Facebook. I always say when Facebook came up with 43 genders, I hope that whoever did that was a Gender and Women’s Studies major, right? Somebody did that–that was somebody’s job! So even there, I think there are ways to shift things.

What do you wish you knew when you were in graduate school, or what would you stress the most to current graduate students of color who want to find a tenure-track position in the future?

We need to learn to define success on our own terms. But part of that is also knowing what’s possible and what’s available. One of the things that the affirmative activism project did, as a project directed towards junior faculty and graduate students of color in the humanities, was what we were calling “deep surveillance”.  That you really need to know your field, your department, the debates, where the field is going. You need to read the Journal of Higher Education. You need to know who has tenure in your department, who’s coming up for tenure, who’s on what committee. You need to do your research about this place where you’re going to be living. When I was a graduate student I didn’t even know what tenure was. I didn’t know what the difference was between assistant and associate professor–I had no idea! I didn’t know what an adjunct was, so that kind of deep surveillance of really knowing the profession as a way to really understand your potential place in it. And to have a clearer sense of what all of your options are because the more you know, the more you can see. It’s never too early to look at job ads–why not?  

Thank you Juana Maria for your dedication to making academia a more welcoming place for marginalized faculty, staff and students, and for your brilliant scholarly contributions!

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About Miyuki Baker

Miyuki is a resident of the place where many circles overlap. They’re a queer, multi-racial/lingual artist, activist & academic passionate about using common or discarded objects, stories, zines, and performance in public spaces to make accessible art. Their research examines how we practice “hope” and meaning through space, architecture and the environment. They’re currently a PhD Candidate in the Department of Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. After graduating from Swarthmore College in 2012, where they were involved in queer Asian activism and making art, they received the Watson Fellowship to travel the world in search of queer artists and activists and made 8 zines highlighting what they learned under their publishing house Queer Scribe Productions. From 2014-2015 she lived in Ecuador and traveled by bicycle from Ecuador to Colombia cataloging traditional textiles, music and food. After returning, they built and lived in a mobile tiny house for a year (until selling it in May 2016).


  1. Tak Combative

    This is a great idea!!! I love this project!!!

  2. Pingback: Beyond the Ivory Tower: Interviews with Academics #2 with Abigail (Gail) De Kosnik | Hey Miyuki!

  3. I love this. Thank you for making the rich intellectual and personal lives of academics visible in this way.

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